The court below issued a writ of mandamus against the Federal Communications Commission, and, because important issues of administrative law are involved, we brought the case here. 308 U.S. 535. We are called upon to ascertain and enforce the spheres of authority which Congress has given to the Commission and the courts, respectively, through its scheme for the regulation
Adequate appreciation of the facts presently to be summarized requires that they be set in their legislative framework. In its essentials the Communications Act of 1934 derives from the Federal Radio Act of 1927, c. 169, 44 Stat. 1162, as amended, 46 Stat. 844. By this Act Congress, in order to protect the national interest involved in the new and far-reaching science of broadcasting, formulated a unified and comprehensive regulatory system for the industry.
Congress moved under the spur of a widespread fear that in the absence of governmental control the public interest might be subordinated to monopolistic domination in the broadcasting field. To avoid this Congress provided for a system of permits and licenses. Licenses were not to be granted for longer than three years. Communications Act of 1934, Title iii, § 307 (d). No license was to be "construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the license." Ibid., § 301. In granting or withholding permits for the construction of stations, and in granting, denying, modifying or revoking licenses for the operation of stations, "public
Following this remand, respondent petitioned the Commission to grant its original application. Instead of doing so, the Commission set for argument respondent's application along with two rival applications for the same facilities. The latter applications had been filed subsequently to that of respondent and hearings had been held on them by the Commission in a consolidated proceeding, but they were still undisposed of when the respondent's case returned to the Commission. With three applications for the same facilities thus before it, and the facts regarding each having theretofore been explored by appropriate procedure, the Commission directed that all three be set down for argument before it to determine which, "on a comparative basis" "in the judgment of the Commission will best serve public interest." At this stage of the proceedings, respondents sought and obtained from the Court of Appeals the writ of mandamus now under review. That writ commanded the Commission to set aside its order designating respondent's application "for hearing on a comparative basis" with the other two, and "to hear and reconsider the application" of The Pottsville Broadcasting Company "on the basis of the record as originally made and in accordance with the opinions" of the Court of Appeals in the original review (69 App. D.C. 7; 98 F.2d 288), and in the mandamus proceedings. Pottsville Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission, 70 App. D.C. 157; 105 F.2d 36.
The Court of Appeals invoked against the Commission the familiar doctrine that a lower court is bound to respect the mandate of an appellate tribunal and cannot reconsider questions which the mandate has laid at rest. See In re Sanford Fork & Tool Co., 160 U.S. 247, 255-56. That proposition is indisputable, but it does not tell us
A much deeper issue, however, is here involved. This was not a mandate from court to court but from a court to an administrative agency. What is in issue is not the relationship of federal courts inter se — a relationship defined largely by the courts themselves — but the due observance by courts of the distribution of authority made by Congress as between its power to regulate commerce and the reviewing power which it has conferred upon the courts under Article III of the Constitution. A review by a federal court of the action of a lower court is only one phase of a single unified process. But to the extent that a federal court is authorized to review an administrative act, there is superimposed upon the enforcement of legislative policy through administrative control a different process from that out of which the administrative action under review ensued. The technical rules derived from the interrelationship of judicial tribunals forming a hierarchical system are taken out of their environment when mechanically applied to determine the extent to which Congressional power, exercised through a delegated agency, can be controlled within the limited scope of "judicial power" conferred by Congress under the Constitution.
Under the Radio Act of 1927 as originally passed, the Court of Appeals was authorized in reviewing action of the Radio Commission to "alter or revise the decision appealed from and enter such judgment as to it may seem just." § 16 of the Radio Act of 1927, 44 Stat. 1169. Thereby the Court of Appeals was constituted "a superior and revising agency in the same field" as that in which the Radio Commission acted. Federal Radio Comm'n v. General Electric Co., 281 U.S. 464, 467. Since the power thus given was administrative rather than judicial, the appellate jurisdiction of this Court could not be invoked. Federal Radio Comm'n v. General Electric Co., supra. To lay the basis for review here, Congress amended § 16 so as to terminate the administrative oversight of the Court of Appeals. c. 788, 46 Stat. 844. In "sharp contrast with the previous grant of authority" the court was restricted to a purely judicial review. "Whether the Commission applies the legislative standards validly set up, whether it acts within the authority conferred or goes beyond it, whether its proceedings satisfy the pertinent demands of due process, whether, in short, there is compliance with the legal requirements which fix the province of the Commission and govern its action, are appropriate
On review the court may thus correct errors of law and on remand the Commission is bound to act upon the correction. Federal Power Comm'n v. Pacific Co., 307 U.S. 156. But an administrative determination in which is imbedded a legal question open to judicial review does not impliedly foreclose the administrative agency, after its error has been corrected, from enforcing the legislative policy committed to its charge. Cf. Ford Motor Co. v. Labor Board, 305 U.S. 364.
The Commission's responsibility at all times is to measure applications by the standard of "public convenience, interest, or necessity." The Commission originally found respondent's application inconsistent with the public interest because of an erroneous view regarding the law of Pennsylvania. The Court of Appeals laid bare that error, and, in compelling obedience to its correction, exhausted the only power which Congress gave it. At this point the Commission was again charged with the duty of judging the application in the light of "public convenience, interest, or necessity." The fact that in its first disposition the Commission had committed a legal error did not create rights of priority in the respondent, as against the later applicants, which it would not have otherwise possessed. Only Congress could confer such a priority. It has not done so. The Court of Appeals cannot write the principle of priority into the statute as an indirect result of its power to scrutinize legal errors in the first of an allowable series of administrative actions. Such an implication from the curtailed review allowed by the Communications Act is at war with the basic policy underlying the statute. It would mean that for practical purposes the contingencies of judicial review and of litigation, rather than the public interest,
It is, however, urged upon us that if all matters of administrative discretion remain open for determination on remand after reversal, a succession of single determinations upon single legal issues is possible with resulting delay and hardship to the applicant. It is always easy to conjure up extreme and even oppressive possibilities in the exertion of authority. But courts are not charged with general guardianship against all potential mischief in the complicated tasks of government. The present case makes timely the reminder that "legislatures are ultimate guardians of the liberties and welfare of the people in quite as great a degree as the courts." Missouri, K. & T. Ry. Co. v. May, 194 U.S. 267, 270. Congress which creates and sustains these agencies must be trusted to correct whatever defects experience may reveal. Interference by the courts is not conducive to the development of habits of responsibility in administrative agencies. Anglo-American courts as we now know them are themselves in no small measure the product of a historic process.
The judgment is reversed, with directions to dissolve the writ of mandamus and to dismiss respondent's petition.
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS concurs in the result.
"There is one special field of law development which has manifestly become inevitable. We are entering upon the creation of a body of administrative law quite different in its machinery, its remedies, and its necessary safeguards from the old methods of regulation by specific statutes enforced by the courts. . . . There will be no withdrawal from these experiments. We shall go on; we shall expand them, whether we approve theoretically or not, because such agencies furnish protection to rights and obstacles to wrong doing which under our new social and industrial conditions cannot be practically accomplished by the old and simple procedure of legislatures and courts as in the last generation." 41 A.B.A. Rep. 355, 368-69.